The more things change for the Ravens, the more they stay the same as they host Tampa Bay on Sunday.
The quarterback and offense are different, but Baltimore entered the bye week with a 4-5 record, won three straight against underwhelming competition, and then lost a heartbreaker on the road against one of the best teams in the NFL. John Harbaugh’s team hadn’t done that since … wait for it … last year.
Still sporting a chance to win the AFC North and considered the favorite in a group of flawed teams currently vying for the No. 6 seed, will the Ravens get the job done this time around?
It’s time to go on the record as these teams meet for just the sixth time ever with the Ravens enjoying a 3-2 advantage. Baltimore has won the last three contests in the series as the Buccaneers haven’t won since 2002, which was their Super Bowl-winning season.
Below are five predictions for Sunday:
1. Ex-Raven Ryan Jensen will be flagged for mixing it up with a former teammate. Ozzie Newsome was wise not to give Jensen a $42 million deal, but that doesn’t mean Baltimore hasn’t missed him as his departure was the biggest change in a sound running game from a year ago becoming inept in the first half of 2018. The Ravens liked Jensen’s fire and physicality, but he’s struggled in Tampa Bay with penalties and underwhelming play as Pro Football Focus ranks him 29th among centers. His propensity for playing through the whistle is a recipe for an altercation with someone like Matt Judon.
2. Kenneth Dixon will lead Baltimore in rushing. Last Sunday’s loss at Kansas City was easily the best Dixon has looked since his rookie season as he registered 80 total yards and a touchdown on nine touches. Meanwhile, Gus Edwards has averaged an ordinary 4.0 yards per carry over the last two games after racking up 5.8 per attempt in the previous two weeks. Edwards will remain heavily involved, but a healthy Dixon is the most versatile of the Ravens’ running backs and gives them some juice as a receiver. Now, you hold your breath that the 2016 fourth-round pick can stay on the field.
3. Tampa Bay’s James Winston will throw a critical interception to spoil a two-touchdown day. The Buccaneers haven’t won a road game since Week 1, but any team that’s beaten New Orleans and held a 14-3 halftime lead in last week’s rematch should have your attention. It’s been a turbulent year for Winston, but he’s thrown eight touchdowns and two picks while averaging 243 passing yards per game over the last four weeks. Meanwhile, Marlon Humphrey, Tony Jefferson, and Tavon Young aren’t 100 percent in the Ravens secondary. That’s a concern facing the league’s No. 1 passing attack that has one of the better receivers in football in Mike Evans.
4. Lamar Jackson will find Willie Snead for the slot receiver’s first touchdown since Week 1. It’s difficult figuring out where the rapport is between these two as Snead was Baltimore’s leading receiver in Jackson’s first start as well as in Kansas City, but the slot receiver had a total of one catch for eight yards in the wins over Oakland and Atlanta. The Ravens need to find more production out of their passing game down the stretch, and Jackson has been most successful throwing over the middle from spread formations, making Snead’s presence important. Tampa Bay ranks dead last in red-zone defense.
5. The Ravens will strengthen their playoff chances with an unspectacular 26-17 victory. My confidence level in a win remains high, but the Buccaneers are capable of giving any team problems with the way they throw the ball all over the field. Their fatal flaw has been an unthinkable 24 interceptions this season, but the Ravens rank 31st in the league with just 10 takeaways — six of them interceptions — and are banged up in the secondary. Playing another bad run defense will help, but the last four weeks have each been one-score games in the fourth quarter as the Ravens aren’t built to blow out teams without the defense or special teams contributing a touchdown or two. Harbaugh’s team won’t gain much from the eyeball-test perspective on Sunday, but a win is all that matters in mid-December.